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What's the secret to a successful play date?

Our latest parenting blog discovers that screen time can sometimes be a big help on the playdate from hell. By Gary Crossing

‘I’m the guest. You’re the host. Which means you have to do everything I say.’

The six-year-old stranger in our hallway hasn’t even taken off his trainers yet and he’s already upset my son, who has a face like thunder on an especially thundery day.

There was no such thing as play dates when I was a kid. Especially not when I was five or six. You’d go to your mate’s house for a birthday party and that was about it. As you got older, gangs of Chopper-riding boys and girls in patched Levi’s and bowl cuts would knock on your door and ask if you were coming out.

There were no supervised, scheduled and timed play sessions with other children. We seldom had anyone round for tea. I’m reliably informed by friends that it was the same for most children growing up in the 70s and 80s. Unless I was extremely unpopular and they are just being kind.

But today, play dates are an integral part of being a child and a parent. Spending time with their friends helps your child develop them socially. And, of course, when your child goes on a play date, you get a much-deserved break while someone else takes the strain.

So, what makes a successful play date?  Well, I’m pretty confident that this isn’t a model example of how one should go. My boy sits scowling in an armchair, refusing to speak to our guest because he doesn’t want to play Lego, Hot Wheels, Power Rangers or any number of toys and games that cram the house and only ever get played when people come to visit.

My son reaches for his iPad, wanting to console himself with a quick game of Crossy Road. Our guest quickly snatches it away from him. ‘I’ll be taking that.’ he says, hugging the device to his chest and marching away. ‘It is bad manners to play something that your guest doesn’t want to play, especially video games.’

He may have a point. Play dates are all about socialising, aren’t they? Not just huddling around an iPad watching while someone plays Roblox.

That said, while my son is being unbelievably, embarrassingly rude, I’m beginning to understand how he feels. Who is this diminutive dictator we’ve welcomed into our home? As my son desperately asks half-way through the date, ‘Why is he here, I don’t even like him?’

Which leads me nicely on to possibly the most important play date rule;

  • Make sure your child actually wants a play date with the child in question. My son met the boy at a sports class over the holidays. The mum left me a note one day saying that they were both getting on very well and why didn’t they get together? Without asking my son I agreed to the play date thinking it would be great for him to meet someone outside of school.

I’ve made a schoolboy error. Having an older son too, I’ve had more than enough experience of play dates in my time. I should have known better. But now I'm paying for it.

As my son watches stony-faced from the armchair, I attempt to entertain our guest. Ker-Plunk comes and goes, as does a particularly taxing Muppets jigsaw puzzle, and an endless stream of those inoffensive, worthy educational board games like Crazy Chefs and Shopping List.

Snacks are produced. A nose is turned up. Alternative snacks are provided.

When we get out the colouring pens and paper, my boy decides to join in. Ah, marvelous! Things are looking up. Our guest draws a lovely, colourful and detailed self-portrait. The kid clearly has talent. Meanwhile, channeling Edvard Munch's The Scream, my son draws a picture of himself crying, fat tears trailing over his downturned mouth, black clouds hovering overhead. It's obvious the hatchet has not been buried. This is turning into the longest two hours of my life.

In a last ditch attempt I reach for the remote. Sure enough, technology, through the wonder of CBBC, saves the day. I wouldn’t say the boys bond but they at least agree to disagree over a mutual fondness for Danger Mouse and Shaun the Sheep. It fair brings a tear to the eye. By the time the boy’s childminder knocks on the door to pick him up, the atmosphere is, if not warm, then pleasingly civil.

Asked how the date went I mumble something about it being a 'slow-burner' and how 'well-behaved' our guest was. The door shuts with a click and we never hear from them again.



Image: CC0 Public Domain